The entry below has been reposted from the original review which went up on my own blog a few hours before I posted it here.
We open on a quiet suburban street. As a frantic, piercing music cue plays, a young woman bursts through a home’s front door, wearing only modest lingerie and shoes. She races up the road, and suddenly stops 40 feet away, looking back. A neighbor, unpacking groceries, asks if she needs help; the younger woman waves the neighbor off – before running in a full circle back towards the house, where her dad is now on the lawn, asking what’s wrong. Both figures disappear into the dark doorway and whatever lies beyond.
And then the young woman runs right the hell back out, gets into the car parked in the driveway, and burns rubber.
The opening to It Follows hooks you in the space of several rapid heartbeats, and the conclusion of the opener is equally engaging. As the story slowly unspools, the audience finds itself sinking into the tale, as slowly and inexorably as a person struggling in quicksand. Although it’s not a perfect horror film, writer/director David Robert Mitchell has crafted a legitimately scary, fun ride.
It seems like throwback cinema is all the rage these days. Guardians of the Galaxy had an Indiana Jones vibe throughout its opening sequence. Predestination felt like a callback to many stripped-down, no-frills sci-fi films, like Gattaca or 12 Monkeys. And The Guest hearkened back to 1980’s and 90’s stories about psychotic strangers who become tragically attached to normal people or families. That last film probably shares the most similarities with It Follows – and only in part because both possess a synth-heavy score that makes you think of John Carpenter’s highlight reel.
In fact, It Follows is so steeped in the work of yesteryear that it confused one of the friends who saw it with me. She arrived 10 minutes late, and so she didn’t see the woman at the beginning use a cell phone to make one frightened, desperate call. We had a long talk about the picture afterwards, and I had to reassure her that it was set in the present day. But my friend had a point: everyone’s clothing style seems pulled from the 70’s/80’s, the cars are almost all older models, and we don’t see another cell phone for the rest of IF’s running time. All I could think was “maybe Detroit’s suburban kids are behind in fashion, and can’t afford cell phones until they move out.”
But beyond the clothing and the cars and the soundtrack, there’s an old-school atmosphere here that is both alluring and simple. Inside the small, wood-paneled homes that make up most of this film’s locations, the story centers on a quartet of youths: Jay (Maika Monroe) is a 21 year-old who lives at home with her nameless, absentee mom and her little sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe). Their companions are Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and – when Jay returns from a date barely-clothed and in shock, it’s the three younger figures who help out. The 17-ish year-old trio even pulls in the older badboy from across the street, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), because he’s a tough, bored rebel who owns a car. Between the corded land-lines and the characters, it’s like I’m freebasing a 1985 horror movie.
What transpired during that date is genuinely horrific. After Jay finally has sex with the guy she’s dating, he subjects her to the most terrifying experience of her life, giving her some advice before he unceremoniously drops her off at home: don’t go into rooms with only one exit; something will come after you, and it’s slow, but it’s smart; if it gets you, it’ll come after me next.
All of this set-up leads in to a gripping narrative that is full of beauty and dread. The cinematography is gorgeous: well-framed close-ups are interspersed with medium- and long-shots whose framing and composition are superb. Several 360-degree pans appear, always dazzling the eye while sucking the audience in to the action and emotion of every scene. The acting, tone, and pace manage to maintain a sense of tension throughout, so the viewer is as on-their-toes as the fictitious characters that they’re watching.
It helps that the cast is full of fresh-faced actors that I didn’t recognize at all. Without the presence of a familiar cinematic face, it’s doubly-hard to find a comfort zone here, which creates high stakes: anyone could die at any time, and that creates a true sense of terror that was, for example, lost from the Scream franchise by the time its second sequel came out.
I hate to tell anyone this, but the biggest problem here is probably the buzz that It Follows has received. I followed reports about this picture from Cannes and TIFF. In each case, the praise was so high that I walked in expecting – and, yes, I did write a post about dropping all my expectations when I take my seat at a theater – a film on par with the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien, 28 Days Later, or The Exorcist. Mitchell’s movie is not as flawless and engrossing as those pictures, but it’s legitimately scary and inventive and well-executed.
I had such a good time that I can’t begrudge It Follows for failing to meet such high standards. I simply can’t say “oh, my god, run to see this as soon as possible – and then run back home and curl up in a ball and try to get a decent night’s rest.”
Some thing, some element of narrative or plot, is missing here, and I know that because my brain keeps trying to figure out what it is that’s missing. When I see a movie that’s “perfect” – or “perfect for what it is and how it was made,” I either don’t think of those questions or I just don’t care. Is it the fact that Yara has (in essence) a Kindle that looks like a woman’s compact mirror, while neither she nor any of her friends even has a cell phone? Is it that it makes no sense that Jay’s date knows the rules of this curse, but nothing else?
I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers that would ruin a really fun and intense viewing experience for others, but the flaws here are just enough that I have questions going through my head that I didn’t have with other films. Babadook may be the best example: I could’ve asked so many questions about that film and how its story played out – but the quality of all the other elements drowned out my confusion and left me feeling satisfied. Here, the work was so good that I was thrilled – but it felt like the seams were quite conspicuous, so I couldn’t simply tune them out.
More than with most other genres, making a great horror film is a Herculean job. Not only does your film have to do the basic job of telling a cinematic story well, with characters that inspire feelings or reactions in the viewer, it has to also satisfy all the elements of a horror film: making the audience feel scared, while creating a threat that works for the characters within the narrative. And it’s an additional challenge because a horror film that doesn’t engross and frighten you is like a comedy with no laughs, or like trying to defend yourself with a gun that has no bullets.
Though the gun is clearly loaded here – I jumped or gasped several times, never feeling cheated, underwhelmed or manipulated – when I wonder why this movie didn’t utterly blow me away, it may have less to do with hype than that the pic could’ve done a little more than it delivered. Sex, sexual imagery, and sexuality are the prime themes of this picture, but they feel half as developed as they need or deserve to be; that’s partly due to some elements that will be too subtle for many people, which I’ll address in some spoiler talk below.
Like death itself – and, thus, like the main antagonist of It Follows – sex is inevitable, inexorable. Although you can see how the film could comment on sex and sexuality, it doesn’t develop the theme of or commentary on sex all that far, nor does it develop the… thing that threatens Jay enough. What does work well is what a harrowing situation Jay is thrust into, and the things that it forces her to do – with more development, though, David Robert Mitchell could make a more concrete and clear statement about sex and sexuality. SPOILERS in the next three paragraphs, highlight to read – and only after you’ve seen IF.
Haha, no I’m not even going to spoil it that much here, as you deserve to be surprised. To the savvy viewer, you can see the multiple connections between sex and whatever it is that… follows – not just in terms of how inevitable both are, but the comparative threat represented by sex and being vulnerable to another person in that uniqely intimate way. And, hey, isn’t the ongoing peril herein very similar to the kind of feelings that Greg, or (especially) Paul, have for Jay? They follow her, too – a lot. It’s just that they’re waiting, and (hopefully) not intent on hurting her.
The flaw is that the latter angle doesn’t land well because Paul is petulant and self-centered and it comes off like “forced dialogue” not “teen horniness.” The scene where Jay reveals that she knows Paul kissed her sister hits the right note – and the “why not me” scenes don’t. But at least here we have a much more twisty concept than Ringu or The Ring (the most likely comparisons people will make) – just with zero explanation – and the unpleasantness of the nudity is sort of really wonderful.
So, too, is Jay’s date, Hugh. He’s actually a lot like what he later warns Jay against: he disguised himself to get close to her, he hurt her, and endangered her life… and she can’t do very much to stop him or get back at him. Hell, he’s even more egregiously concerned with himself when he says “don’t die or else I’m next, okay?” How terrible is that? How many people actually go through something like that – either emotionally, because they slept with a jerk, or physically, because they had unprotected sex?
Those little issues don’t come close to derailing this fine film. The movie is funny, exciting, and stark. Its visuals are great, the cast is really, really good at selling their emotions and personalities, and I like almost all of the dialogue.
It’s just that I’m sure that I should’ve enjoyed this even more because I stopped reading last year’s Cannes report on it after the first paragraph. I hadn’t watched a single trailer for IF until I wrote this, and I knew nothing about the cast or story. I was floored by its strengths, but I should’ve left It Follows grinning and giddy (Scream, Elm Street), or quiet because I was so unsettled (12 Monkeys). Under the Skin, too, was great at using sex and nakedness in such an unsexy way, while still filming its unpleasant subject well – not just with all the male nudity, but in that it gave you an attractive actress naked and dared you not to want her, and the director won that dare.
How did I know I had a little problem with IF? Well, I was never conflicted or uncertain in how I felt about UtS. When that film ended, I was quiet from a modest sense of awe, and thoughtfulness as I tried to think out the story. This weekend, I stood up from my seat feeling quiet because I was trying to work out whether the movie was overrated or not, whether expectation had deflated its accomplishments or not – and I couldn’t come up with a sure answer until hours later, when I talked it out with a friend over drinks.
This is a great independent film, I hope tons of people see and enjoy the holy hell out of it. And I may very well be among the few people who think there’s a little something missing or needed here (95% on Rotten Tomatoes says it all). Regardless, the cast and filmmakers focused on making a scary movie, and they succeeded beautifully. Film lovers are better off for their efforts. Don’t even watch the trailer and spoil anything, just go see it and let me know what you think…